Black Gold

Coal has been one of virginia’s most valuable resources for more than 300 years.  Here’s a look at the places and the people whose heritage has been shaped by the pursuit of this shiny black rock.

Photography by Robb Scharetg


The two boilers at Dominion’s coal-fired Clover Power Station in Halifax County are about as close to a time machine as you’ll find anywhere. Each one is a massive 50 feet square and 180 feet high. Their thick, steel shells are designed to contain an extraordinary fire that can reach 3,000 degrees, stretch 15 stories and power 210,000 homes. Jamie Laine, 48, an engineer who has worked at the plant for two decades, offers a peek at the inferno by prying open a small hatch on a boiler’s wall. The searing light that escapes through the opening is blinding—solar energy that hit the earth hundreds of millions of years ago, stored until this very moment in the coal that fuels this conflagration.

Coal is part of the fabric of Virginia, from the mountain hollows of the Southwest to the shipping terminals of the East, and for more than 300 years, the world has been unleashing the power stored in the rich seams beneath the Commonwealth’s surface. Coal is still mined in seven Southwestern counties: Buchanan, Tazewell, Dickenson, Russell, Wise, Scott and Lee. It’s here in this rural, mountainous region—where trains are heavily laden with coal, and coal preparation plants wait around every bend—that the industry, a mainstay of the economy, makes its redoubt and shapes the region’s culture. This shiny black rock has come under increased scrutiny in recent decades by the government and groups concerned about the environmental impact of extracting and burning coal, and the industry faces ever-toughening standards for emission controls. But coal provides the fuel for roughly half of the electricity generated in the U.S. today, and, according to an April 2011 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, will continue to account for the largest share of electricity generation for decades to come.

Virginia’s commercial coal mines were the first in North America. Surprisingly, Virginians’ quest for coal began not in the Appalachian Mountains, but just a few miles west of Richmond in Chesterfield County. There, in the Richmond Coalfield Basin (one of Virginia’s three coalfield regions), a diamond-shaped, 150-square-mile coal seam lies steeply pitched beneath the bucolic, rolling hills of Midlothian. French Huguenot settlers discovered this seam around 1700, igniting commercial mining operations that lasted two centuries and, in its heyday, supported as many as eight mines, which produced 75,000 tons of coal per year. Located on the site of these coal pits today is Mid-Lothian Mines Park, a 44-acre preserve, which was established in 2004. The park contains some of the few remaining vestiges of Central Virginia’s mines—haunting stone ruins that suggest the dangers miners faced underground: flooding, foul air, roof falls and, of course, explosions sparked by the highly volatile methane released from the coal when the men dug into it. The perils of these early coal pits killed hundreds of miners in at least half a dozen major explosions in the 19th century. Their deaths, along with labor shortages and the end of the Civil War—which at first stimulated production to fuel the Confederacy’s defense industry (particularly the nearby Tredegar Iron Works)—ultimately doomed Midlothian’s mining industry, which folded completely by the early 1900s.

The search for coal moved west to the Valley Coalfield, Virginia’s second coalfield region. Though several coal seams in the counties of Montgomery and Pulaski would produce more than 6 million tons of coal over 150 years beginning in the late 18th century, it was Virginia’s far Western frontier—the Southwest Coal Region—where explorers were surveying immense coal seams that promised untold amounts of energy for a rapidly industrializing nation. By the late 1800s, entrepreneurs found a way to exploit these Western deposits, which lie beneath 1,550 square miles over seven counties. Productivity skyrocketed when, in the 1930s, mechanization replaced more labor-intensive mining techniques in the region. The extension of Virginia railroads, including those of the Norfolk & Western Railroad, into the Southwestern part of the state in the late 19th century facilitated the shipping of coal mined in Southwest Virginia to the coal piers at Hampton Roads and thus, the world. More than 2 billion tons of coal have been produced in the Southwest Coal Region since that time, and today it remains the epicenter of Virginia’s coal industry.

Located in the heart of Virginia’s Southwest coalfields is the town of Appalachia—a folksy community of 1,800. The mountains are tight and wrinkled here, and streams tumble off their steep slopes, gurgling their way to lower ground. There are neat brick storefronts along the town’s Main Street and orderly, working class neighborhoods across the railroad tracks and beyond the Powell River that runs through town. Towns like Appalachia, which celebrated its centennial in 2006, sprung up in the late 19th century when the railroads finally linked this region—and the vast mineral riches underneath—to energy-hungry consumers to the east and west. Appalachia’s motto, “Born from coal, survives through spirit,” seems especially apt given that many of the coal camps located in the narrow mountain hollows northwest of town that boomed in the first half of the 20th century didn’t survive the transition when the seams beside them were eventually mined out and the companies moved on to the next mountain. This is a place where proud people embrace their heritage with things like the Coal Miners Wall, the Miners’ Memorial Park and the weeklong Coal/Railroad Days that takes place every August. The town is also part of Virginia’s Coal Heritage Trail, a 325-mile network of roads that crisscross the southwestern counties and comprises museums, visitor centers and recreation opportunities. Along this trail, visitors can explore Tazewell County’s Pocahontas Exhibition Mine, which produced upwards of 44 million tons of coal in its 73 years in operation, or stay in Big Stone Gap to see the outdoor drama “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” titled for the novel of the same name by John Fox Jr., which recounts the region’s coal boom of the early 20th century.

The Carter Family Fold near Hiltons is another of the many stops along Virginia’s Coal Heritage Trail. Located at the foot of Clinch Mountain, it is the home of legendary musician A.P. Carter who, with his eponymous family band, is credited with creating the genre of country music in the 1920s. The Carter Family Fold is part of the Carter Family Memorial Music Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of old-time, traditional country and mountain music. There are weekly Saturday night performances at the Carter Fold: This is boot-stomping old-time mountain music, inspired by day-to-day life in coal communities. As long as people have been mining coal, they’ve been singing songs about it. Just as soon as the guitars and fiddles light up the stage, the ample dance floor in front of it fills to capacity with concertgoers who add to the music with the rhythmic clicks of their clogging, a folk dance with roots deep in Appalachia. These performances attract all sorts of folks, including eight-year-old Baleigh Oates from Erwin, Tennessee, who, on a recent Saturday, giddily clogged all two-and-half hours that the Bristol, Virginia-based Dixie Bee-Liners jammed out bluegrass numbers onstage. Oates, like other youngsters on the dance floor, made the hour-long trip with older relatives who want to preserve the heritage of their mountain ancestors. “It’s the kind of music, the kind of place that makes you feel good, like a church social,” says Janice Barnett, Oates’ aunt.  

But as deeply rooted in its past as coal is, it is also very much a part of life in Virginia today. On a chilly fall morning, I was invited by the Clevinger family to their tidy, two-story home in Castlewood to see firsthand the legacy of Virginia’s coal. They know coal well; all of them work for the Abingdon-based Alpha Natural Resources. Earlier this year, Alpha acquired Richmond-based Massey Energy. The $7.1 billion buyout gave Alpha the second largest private sector coal reserves in the U.S.—in the neighborhood of 5 billion tons. (St. Louis-based Peabody Energy Corp. has the largest.) With the takeover, Alpha now controls nearly 200 mines and coal preparation plants in the Appalachian region and Wyoming.

“The factories come and go, and they always will. But we’ve got to have coal,” says Teddy Clevinger, 54, a heavy equipment operator at Alpha’s 1,500-acre Surface Mine 88, which straddles the Dickenson-Buchanan county line. Clevinger has worked for three decades in the coal industry; three of those years at Surface Mine 88. His wife, Jenny, 51, is a supervisor in human resources at Alpha’s Abingdon headquarters, and his daughter Jessica, 27, is executive assistant to Alpha’s president. The Clevinger’s son, Bradford, 24, worked underground for about a year as a miner at Deep Mine 41, near McClure in Dickenson County, and now works in human resources at Alpha headquarters. Jenny Clevinger’s sister, Brenda Steele, recently retired from Alpha after being in the industry for 32 years. But this family’s association with coal goes back even further—Jenny Clevinger’s grandfather worked in the coal industry for more than 20 years (for several companies, including Clinchfield Coal Co.) as a miner and nightwatchman. “Everything you see here has been provided by coal,” says Jenny Clevinger.

“There are certainly other respectable careers in the coalfields,” says Teddy Clevinger, “but this is the job.” On a recent morning, he and 55 other miners worked to remove about 28 tons of overburden—the earth and stone that lie above the coal—for each of the 425,000 tons of coal they produce annually at Surface Mine 88. After the coal has been extracted, Clevinger uses the bulldozer to move the earth back to its original approximate contour, according to federal regulation. Surface Mine 88 is a lot like an outsider might expect: It is a patchwork of terraced hillsides, sheer cliffs and level enclaves where coal is loaded into trucks and carried along muddy roads that wind circuitously up the hillsides. “When we’re finished, we’ll put the land back the way it was, as close as we can get it,” says Clevinger.  

Jenny Clevinger recognizes that her husband has a risky job. And so did her son Bradford when he worked as a miner at Alpha’s Deep Mine 41. At the start of each shift Bradford and a dozen other miners made the 15-minute trip to the mine’s face aboard a “mantrip,” a long, squat vehicle designed to maneuver easily under the mine’s short ceilings, sometimes as low as five feet. More than 400 feet beneath the surface, Bradford and his colleagues used a continuous miner, a contraption which, on its business end, has a rotating steel drum studded with teeth to shred coal from the seam’s face. A conveyer belt moved the coal more than half a mile up the sloping shaft to the surface. Then it was washed at a nearby processing plant, put in a tipple and loaded into railcars, destined for customers around the world. Despite the dangers, Jenny Clevinger says she has always felt reassured by the measures in place for miners’ safety. “I don’t get worried about them,” she says. “I get up in the morning and say a prayer for my family, and that’s it. We all go about our day.”

Bradford Clevinger earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Virginia’s College at Wise in 2009, and is today one of a handful of young men in Alpha’s “Next Gen” program. Alpha and other coal companies are facing a generational predicament. Regularly occurring fluctuations in international energy markets and a downturn in coal markets in the 1980s, along with technological advances in mining techniques and increased mechanization that eliminated jobs compelled mine operators to cut back on hiring, forcing then-young men to look for work elsewhere.  Many employees are now nearing retirement age, and there are not enough younger workers to fill that void. So Alpha is actively recruiting younger workers like Bradford Clevinger and rotating them through jobs around the country to give them exposure to the different career options the company offers and prepare them for future leadership positions. Bradford Clevinger, for instance, first worked in payroll at Alpha’s headquarters before going underground at Deep Mine 41. He then did a stint at a surface mine near Pound, Virginia, and is now working in the human resources department. “I like the different types of jobs that are available and seeing the company from so many angles,” he says.  

Alpha’s CEO Kevin Crutchfield, 50, is a 24-year coal industry veteran who joined the company as executive vice president in 2003 and became its chief executive in 2009. Running a coal company, says the Virginia Tech grad, has changed dramatically in recent decades due to, among other things, increasingly strict oversight of the industry. As a testament, Crutchfield shows me a photo of an Alpha employee standing beside the paperwork required for one surface mine, and it is literally taller than he is. Crutchfield concedes that the U.S. has decisions to make about carbon-based energy but, for now, coal supplies so much cheap energy to the world that immediate, sharp declines in its use are not realistic. Still, coal is a depleting resource, and Crutchfield explains that Alpha “has an obligation to start thinking about the future.” Though the country has enough coal to last more than 200 years—based on estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Administration—Alpha has created an internal sustainability group that is looking ahead to the advent of non-coal energy and the development of alternate uses for coal.

Americans, of course, are not the only ones who demand coal-fired energy. A majority of Alpha’s coal is shipped to international customers, ending up in power plants and steel mills in South America, Europe and Asia: A total of more than 80 million tons of American coal were exported in 2010 alone, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Virginia’s coal meets the end of the railroad at two places. Norfolk Southern transports coal to Lambert’s Point in Norfolk, and what doesn’t end up there is hauled by CSX to a point in Newport News where the deep harbor is able to accommodate coal ships. More than a thousand CSX coal trains a year arrive around the clock at Dominion Terminal Associates (DTA) and its competitor Kinder Morgan, which is also in Newport News. DTA is an active place, pulsing with emphatic warning sirens and flashing lights. The brackish sea breeze coming off the James River makes an interesting contrast to the constant mechanical drone of heavy industry. Like the employees there, I had to be on high alert for spinning conveyors, moving trains and mobile “stacker reclaimers,” colossal, long-armed towers that can make or remove the giant piles of coal. Here it’s unmistakable that Virginia is coal country; the coal is deposited in a 66-acre ground storage area in great mounds that are sometimes 80 feet high. The ships that will carry it can hold as much as 100,000 tons of coal—equal to more than 900 railcars. All told, DTA moves 14 million tons of coal a year.

 It must be acknowledged that among the numerous challenges the coal industry faces is the public perception of its dangers. Explosions, like the one at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine in 2010 that killed 29 miners, and mining disasters in other countries like Ukraine and China, also give the industry a black eye (though safety regulations are much more lax in those countries). But, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of nonfatal injuries in mining is fewer than in other industries including manufacturing and construction.

“We run our operations with the highest degree of safety and efficacy that we can muster,” says Alpha’s Crutchfield. Alpha has employed a company-wide safety ethic called Running Right that encourages employees to submit cards, anonymously if they choose, with suggestions for improvement, praise for colleagues or reports of infractions. Efforts like those are paying dividends in terms of safer employee conditions and increased productivity. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (part of the U.S. Department of Labor), the coal industry has seen a 76 percent increase in productivity in the past four decades, while decreasing on-the-job fatalities by 93 percent in that same period.

But it isn’t just mine safety that draws negative public attention to the industry. Even with very strict regulations for pollution control in place, coal-fired power plants are a hard sell to a public becoming increasingly wary of the environmental impact of extracting coal and the chemicals released when it burns. (In March, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new rule for regulating toxic air emissions from power plants that could be, according to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity’s website, “one of the most expensive clean air rules ever written for coal-fueled power plants.”) In the past few years, Virginia has taken center stage in the debate over coal-fired plants. Dominion Virginia Power faced vocal and disruptive protests when it began construction of its Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County in 2008. (Construction on this coal and biofuel-fired plant is expected to be complete in 2012.) And in Tidewater, Old Dominion Electric Cooperative is locked in an ongoing battle with concerned citizens about their plans to build a 1,500-megawatt plant in the tiny Surry County town of Dendron.

“There’s no such thing as clean coal,” says Sam Broach, 64, a former coal miner who worked for Westmoreland Coal Co. for eight years until an injury sidelined him. Today, he is president of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, a group that operates from a small storefront on Appalachia’s Main Street. It is one of a number of local groups that want to help Southwest Virginia—and the country at large—make the transition away from coal. But Broach acknowledges that the move to other energy sources must be gradual. “I understand that we need coal until we can transition to greener jobs and a greener economy,” he says, “but we need to make some strides now if Appalachians are going to make that change.”

And while change is certain to come, the people who have a vested interest in the coalfields and the industry have shown time and again their flexibility and ingenuity. Back in the town of Appalachia, town manager Fred Luntsford is looking to the future of the land around him. Tall and contemplative with a soft drawl, Luntsford is proud to show off his town. “We know we’ve got some land that’s not usable for what it once was,” he says, referring to areas where mining, particularly that done before strict regulations, left the landscape profoundly changed and, in some cases, deeply blemished. “Our challenge now is finding another use for it.” Luntsford and Wise County Tourism Director Bill Smith envision a network of trails where visitors can ride ATVs or horses, or hike on land once used for mining. And Smith sees an added benefit in the region’s rich history. “People not only want a place they can find recreation, but they want a good story, too,” he says. “We have our deep culture to share, and already visitors are showing great interest in it.”

Virginia’s coal industry has survived centuries, fueled by generations who earned their livelihoods from it and built their culture around it. Says Jenny Clevinger: “Millions of people have worked their entire lives for coal. There are whole regions of the country devoted to it. I’m sure that generations from now, people will look around at the prosperity and appreciate what coal has given them.”

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